Bridging the Gap between K-12 Teachers and Postsecondary Historians

Wilson J. Warren, October 2008

The Teaching American History (TAH) program has spotlighted the need for improving communication and interaction among K–12 and postsecondary teachers of history. In fact, the TAH program comes on the heels of two decades’ worth of renewed effort in this regard. During the 1980s and 1990s, several collaborative groups were founded, including the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, the National Council for History Education, and the National Center for History in the Schools. The cooperation among historians of various backgrounds that occurred during the production of the National Standards for History in the 1990s and, unfortunately, the squabbles that resulted from their publication, also spurred groups like the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to provide more opportunities for communication.

Although most K–12 history teachers and academic historians agree that communication needs to be improved, there is no consensus about specifically what needs to be addressed. Based on my experiences as both a secondary-school history teacher and history educator at three universities, it seems to me that the root of the communication problem is a lack of understanding among individuals in the two camps about what the other side believes is most important about history. A consequence of this lack of understanding has often been misgivings about what the other side does with history.1 Most, though certainly not all, academics feel that they are scholars as defined by their research and writing. Most K–12 instructors see themselves as teachers first and foremost, though some certainly pursue reading in specific areas of history in ways not too dissimilar from academics. This divide is reminiscent of the Populists’ focus on producers versus consumers. As applied to the world of history education, the academic producers often look askance at the K–12 teachers’ consumption habits while the K–12 teachers appreciate the academics’ products but would like them to better value the teaching they do and the real limits that define their teaching world.

Beyond TAH: Opportunities for Meaningful Interaction

So what can be done in the short term to bridge the gap between K–12 teachers and academic historians? If nothing else, the TAH program has demonstrated the power of small groups of teachers and academics meeting together to facilitate new understandings. The history faculty who have worked with me in three TAH programs with teachers from southwest Michigan have often remarked about just how much better they appreciate the situations of their counterparts in the schools while the K–12 teachers have quite frequently told me that they had no idea college and university faculty would be so open and approachable. Granted, TAH dollars have helped to bring the two sides together. But I believe there are several other opportunities that might also help to pull the two groups into conversations about issues that meaningfully affect both.

All states have transitioned to standards-based curricula and, generally, state departments of education put out calls for K–12 teachers and college and university teachers to participate in the cycles of review and revision that these curricula must go through. These calls often go out to groups like the state affiliates of the National Council for History Education. Because these affiliates consist of boards made up of both K–12 and postsecondary historians, collaborative efforts are necessary. Once new standards and curricula are in place, academics and K–12 history teachers then must continue to work together to develop workshops that help teachers put flesh on the barebones of new standards and other curricula initiatives.

Another opportunity for meaningful interaction takes place when the two sides work together in student programs. The National History Day competitions require competent judges and district and state coordinators of these competitions seek out both K–12 and post-secondary faculty to assess students’ historical products. History Day is especially useful for valuable conversation because the contest requires students to use primary source materials. In my experience as a History Day judge, I have appreciated the perspectives of my K–12 colleagues about how students’ research efforts have shaped their final History Day productions. I have experienced the same sort of meeting of the minds when I served as a reader for the Advanced Placement U.S. History Examination. All three of the A.P. history exams—U.S., European, and World—put out calls for readers (essay graders) every year, particularly to college and university faculty, and anyone who has served as a reader has multiple opportunities to meet and talk with truly gifted secondary history instructors. I gained new appreciation for the efforts of the K–12 readers who explained the work required in their A.P. history classes.

History Departments and Training of New K–12 Teachers

The recent report, jointly sponsored by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, titled The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities, focuses attention on another issue, preparation of new K–12 history teachers, that should bring the two sides together.2 History departments, like mine, which train new secondary history teachers, need to engage in dialogue with their K–12 colleagues about the preparation of new history teachers. Ideally, such history departments should have one or more faculty members who specialize in history education and who can lead these efforts. D. Antonio Cantu and I recently published a book, History Education 101: The Past, Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation (Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2008) that includes contributions from several of the leading history educators in the United States about their efforts to prepare new elementary and secondary history teachers as well as collaborate with in-service K–12 history teachers.

Dialogue about History Education Research

One of the ways that history education specialists can spark new conversations among their academic colleagues and precollegiate teaching partners is by encouraging discussion about the recent history pedagogy literature. Although elementary, secondary, and postsecondary history educators and historians have written about how to teach history for over a century, the recent work of history educators trained in cognitive psychology or other methods of qualitative research, especially using participant-observation methodologies, has spurred new understandings about how people, especially young people, learn history. This literature, represented perhaps most notably but certainly not solely by Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), has generated exciting new debates about how best to teach history so that students actually learn it. Several history education specialists, including, among others, Kieran Egan, Peter Lee, Roslyn Ashby, Peter Seixas, and Linda Levstik, have made significant contributions to our understanding of how students learn history.3 The National Research Council’s How Students Learn History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005) is a useful place to start in gauging the dimensions of this literature. Another useful primer in this regard is Lee Shulman, The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004). Included in this collection of Shulman’s lifelong teaching research is his explanation of pedagogical content knowledge, a phrase that encapsulates how effective instruction needs to connect content knowledge to the teaching process.

In addition to the new literature on how students learn history, other recent work on related but broader topics in history education include explorations of how history is contextualized within the broader realm of social studies instruction in the schools; how textbooks have been used (and abused) in the schools; how students can engage in historical practices using technology and non-print sources; and how new assessment practices have shaped history curricula and instruction. Ronald W. Evans has written excellent books on the long-standing debates among K–12 and academic instructors about history and the social studies.4 Joseph Moreau’s recent book explains significant conflicts over U.S. history textbooks from the Civil War to the present.5 David J. Staley and Bruce Fehn’s research on visual thinking in history explains why historical instruction and source materials need to go beyond traditional documents.6 S. G. Grant’s work on assessment practices in history is particularly important for both K–12 and post-secondary history instructors to understand.7

As I sometimes need to remind my colleagues, bridging the gap between K–12 teachers and post-secondary historians is important for a host of reasons, perhaps most immediate of which is that a majority of the students who take history courses in elementary and secondary schools in the United States will end up taking at least one history course in American colleges and universities. To return to the Populists’ focus on producers versus consumers, those of us who teach college history will be the consumers of the K–12 history teachers’ products. We all have a stake in improving the quality of history instruction that students receive.

—Wilson J. Warren is professor of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. He specializes in American labor history as well as history education. He can be reached at wilson.warren@wmich.edu.

Notes

1. See, for instance, the essays included in “The State of the Profession” section of the History Teacher 40(February 2007), 219–273.

2. The report is available online.

3. Kieran Egan, “Layers of Historical Understanding,” Theory and Research in Social Education 17 (Fall 1989), 280–94; Peter Lee and Roslyn Ashby, “Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7–14,” in Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, eds. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University, 2000), 199–222; Peter Seixas, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance,” Theory and Research in Social Education 22 (Summer 1994), 281–304; and Linda S. Levstik, “Articulating the Silences: Teachers’ and Adolescents’ Conceptions of Historical Significance,” in Knowing, Teaching and Learning History, 284–305.

4. Ronald W. Evans, The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children? (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004); Ronald W. Evans, This Happened in America: Harold Rugg and the Censure of Social Studies (Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 2007).

5. Joseph Moreau, Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003).

6. David J. Staley, Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002); David J. Staley, “A Heuristic for Visual Thinking in History,” International Journal of Social Education 22 (Spring/Summer 2007), 24–42; and Bruce Fehn, “Composing Visual History: Using PowerPoint Slideshows to Explore Historical Narrative,” International Journal of Social Education 22(Spring/Summer 2007), 43–67.

7. S. G. Grant, History Lessons: Teaching, Learning, and Testing in U.S. High School Classrooms (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003).